A table, a chair – and liberty in the space between

Posted on December 18, 2012

Whether you like the monarchy or not, you’ve got to agree that the Queen knows her job inside out. It’s hard to think of anyone who has a more natural, ingrained understanding of her role and the protocol that goes with it. Just witness her glance of disappointment when Barack Obama bungled things and talked over the national anthem last year.

So it’s fair to say she does not do things by accident when enacting her constitutional role.

There was a great example of this at her visit to this morning’s Cabinet meeting. As the camera panned down the table, two things were noticeable.

First, that she was sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair. This is symbolic as well as polite – a reminder that the PM exercises many of his powers under Royal Prerogative, on the Queen’s behalf. She was visiting, so he gave up the chair to the person whose powers he exercises.

The second was that the Queen was sitting ever so slightly back from the table. Every minister had his or her chair pulled in to do business – she, though, was a few inches further back.

It is the tiniest thing, but far from irrelevant. It wasn’t chosen to enable a quicker getaway, or for leg-stretching room, but because it was part of her role in the room. In our constitutional monarchy, which has proved such a stable way of preserving democratic liberty against the tyranny of crown or dictatorship since 1688, the Queen was there to watch others exercise the powers of Government, not to govern herself.

She sat by the Cabinet table, not at it. And in those few inches of space lay 324 years of constitutional history – liberty preserved by the placing of a chair.

You won’t find an elected president in the world who is as classy as that.